Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Understanding the Archbishop: Thomas Becket and the Case of the Criminous Clerks

by Rosanne E. Lortz 

Thomas Becket is known far and wide as the archbishop who wrangled with England’s Henry II and ended up being slain in the church at Canterbury. Although most consider Becket’s murder a deplorable event, historical opinion is divided over whether Becket was in the right in the first place. Did he really have any justification for standing in Henry’s way? Was he not simply quibbling over minutiae and defending an indefensible position?

The place that I will pick up in the story is just after Henry finagled matters so that Becket could become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Previously, Becket had been Henry’s royal chancellor and had proved his usefulness and loyalty to the king time and again. But within the month of his election as archbishop, he resigned his position as royal chancellor. It was a move he did not have to make. In the king’s mind, Becket could have retained both positions without any conflict of interest. Becket thought otherwise. This resignation of the chancellorship was the first manifestation that he was not the king’s man any longer.

Those inside of Becket’s household began to see a change in their master. John of Salisbury wrote that, “Upon his consecration he immediately put off the old man, and put on the hairshirt and the monk, crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires.” No longer was his house a scene of Epicurean delights. The gold was gone from the tables. The fare was frugal and spare. Becket also took seriously his liturgical duties. He performed the office of the sacraments with all the reverence that was required but that had never been expected of him. He withdrew as often as he could into prayer and study in order that he might be better equipped for his office of teacher and pastor.

Right away the pulpit of Canterbury resounded with a new voice, a voice powerful and persuasive, the like of which had not been heard since the days of Archbishop Anselm. The chronicler Roger of Pontigny gives us a taste of Becket’s preaching:
It happened at that time in certain crowded gathering that Thomas delivered a sermon to the clergy and people in the presence of the king. His sermon concerned the kingdom of Christ the Lord, which is the Church, and the worldly kingdom, and the powers of each realm, priestly and royal, and also the two swords, the spiritual and the material. And as on this occasion he discussed much about ecclesiastical and secular power in a wonderful way—for he was very eloquent—the king took note of each of his words, and recognizing that he rated ecclesiastical dignity far above any secular title, he did not receive his sermon with a placid spirit. For he sensed from his words how distant the archbishop was from his own position.
Becket had changed, and not—in Henry’s mind—for the better.

The first open dispute between archbishop and king was over money. Traditionally, all of the manors and churches in an English county would pay small sums to support the local sheriffs in their own area. These sheriffs were the king’s men, but they also provided the people with security and protection from regional bandits and extortionists. In July of 1163, Henry decided to divert this tax money away from the local government and into the moneybags of the royal exchequer.

Although this plan affected both layfolk as well as clergy, Becket was the only one out of all the barons and bishops to protest. Roger of Pontigny records that he rose to his feet and spoke to Henry before all the council of the realm:
Lord, it does not become your excellence to deflect something that belongs to another to your use, especially when these two shillings are conferred on your ministers not out of necessity or duty, but rather as a favour. For if your sheriffs conduct themselves peacefully and respectfully towards our men, we will indeed give freely. But if they do not we will not, nor can we be forced by law. 
The archbishop’s tone was calm, but there was nothing calm about the king’s reply. “By the eyes of God, they will be enrolled immediately!” Henry roared, meaning that the tax money would be recorded on the parchment rolls that keep an account of royal revenues. Then he berated the archbishop for taking a stand against him: “You yourself well ought to assent to my wish in this regard.”

With formidable frankness, the archbishop shot back a reply: “By the eyes by which you swear, never while I am living will they be given from my land.”

Near the time of this tax dispute, another conflict arose between Henry and Becket. The archbishop had excommunicated William of Eynsford, an influential landholder. The reason? Becket had appointed a clerk to preside over a vacant church on one of William’s holdings. William had objected to the appointment and had expelled the clerk from his land. Frank Barlow well summarizes the ensuing fray:
Thomas, without consulting or even notifying Henry, excommunicated William, who complained to the king. Henry, by means of a writ, ordered Thomas to absolve William. The archbishop replied that absolution, like excommunication, was a matter for him not for the king. Henry answered that it was a royal prerogative that tenants-in-chief should not be excommunicated without his consent. There was a blazing quarrel over this, and in the end Thomas gave way.
One round to Becket, one round to Henry, and the third round still to come. These first two disputes reveal fairly clearly what lay at the heart of the quarrel between Church and king. The arguments over who would hold the Church’s purse strings and who would wield her sword of excommunication were smaller pieces of the larger question: was the Church subservient to the crown? Could Henry ride roughshod over the ecclesiastical authorities simply because they dwelt in the land of which he was king? It is well to keep the heart of this quarrel in mind, for the next dispute, a dispute far more violent and publicized than the previous two, stirred up a whirlwind of accusations and obscurities that clouded the issue.

The next dispute was actually a series of cases that all involved a common thread. Men of the cloth were committing crimes. One clerk stole a silver cup from the church of his bishop; another clerk lay with a woman and then slew her father. The most famous of these cases was that of the canon Philip de Broi who was accused of killing a knight. In each of these cases, Henry wished to take the offending clergyman and try him for his offenses in the royal court.

Becket refused to allow this. It is not right, he contended, for a man of the Church to be judged in the court of the world. The Church will discipline her own. And moreover, if the king should punish a man for a crime that the Church had already disciplined, then he would wrong the man by punishing him twice for the same sin.

Henry took exception to this. The bishops were notoriously lenient in their correction of the criminous clerks, and the clerks seemed to become more notoriously lawless every year. Stricter measures must be had, and where better to enforce them than in his own courts? In the two previous disputes, Henry was acting on nothing stronger than his royal greed for gold and power, but in this dispute over the criminous clerks, Henry claimed to have tradition on his side.

Both William Rufus and Henry I had exercised considerable power over the affairs of the Church,  and since his immediate predecessors had all been as power-hungry as he was, Henry could claim that English custom was on his side. The dictates of tradition are hard to deny, but Thomas refused to be swayed by them. Richard Mortimer writes that:
The only legitimacy Henry II could allege for his demands in his conflict with archbishop Thomas Becket was that conferred by the custom of the realm, and to this Thomas's answer came readily: ‘Christ did not say “I am custom”, but “I am truth”.’ 
Many in retrospect have derided Thomas for his stand on this issue. What could he have been thinking? Church historian Philip Schaff thanks God that the Reformation has given us “a more just appreciation of the virtues and faults of Thomas Becket than was possible in the age in which he lived and died.” He goes on to say, “To most of his countrymen, as to the English-speaking people at large, his name has remained the synonym for priestly pride and pretension, for an arrogant invasion of the rights of the civil estate.”

But such blanket condemnation of Becket’s stance ignores the historical context surrounding the dispute. For decades, the kings of England, the Holy Roman Emperors, and other European potentates had been trying to insert their tentacles into the hierarchy of the church. Because bishops were landholders in their demesnes, they were insisting that they had the right to interfere with the Church’s elections and appointments. As we saw in the second conflict between Henry and Becket, kings were going so far as to say that the Church must ask permission of the crown before wielding the sword of excommunication.

The relationship between Church and state had already rubbed raw in England and was chafing the backs of ecclesiastics and seculars all over Europe. When kings claimed the right to ordain and defrock the clergy as it pleased them, is it any wonder that the Church’s response—that kings had no power whatsoever over the persons of the clergy—savored of the reactionary? By denying that Henry had the right to try clerks for their crimes, Becket believed that he was holding ground in a larger struggle. Instead of picking his battles, he was manning the walls against all attacks.

The events that follow the case of the criminous clerks are well known. Becket, for a time, stood contra Henry and, without the support of his fellow bishops, seemingly contra mundum. Eventually, he recanted his position and agreed to support the king’s demands at Clarendon—until on second thought, he recanted his recantation, leading to his exile from England and his eventual return and martyrdom.

Becket’s stance on the criminous clerks, taken out of context, seems a prime piece of folly. Did he really want men of the cloth to be able to get away with murder? But looked at in the light of the Church/state controversies throughout the previous century, it becomes a more understandable—though perhaps still misguided—step to take. Becket saw this as one more area where the king was trying to erode the power of the Church. His response was an over-reaction, but an over-reaction that occurred in the heat of battle. And when arrows and missiles are flying all around, it’s not always easy for a man to rein his horse in the wisest direction.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Barlow, Frank. Thomas Becket. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Bartlett, Robert. England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 5, The Middle Ages, A. D. 1049-1294. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1907.

Staunton, Michael, trans. and ed., The Lives of Thomas Becket. NY: Manchester University Press, 2001.


  1. Enjoyed the article Roseanne - very well set out. Have you read the new John Guy biography of Becket? I thought it was excellent - although Henry II doesn't emerge from it well at all.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! No, I haven't read Guy's biography. But I'm no fan of Henry II, so it sounds like I would enjoy it! :-)

  2. Thank you so much for this enlightening article. As a Catholic I've always admired Becket's radical conversion on being ordained a bishop, but I've always been uncomfortable with his position on ecclesial vs. civil trials for accused churchmen. Thank you for clarifying his position, and for reminding me that saints aren't saints because they're perfect, but because they are flawed humans who strive in faith to do the best with the knowledge they have.

    1. Becket's double-jeopardy argument was consistent with the ecclesiastical ascendancy of Alexander III above Henry II's mere tenure of provincial kingship, an acquiescence regally signed in bloodly footsteps staining the path of his whipping penitence in Canterbury.

      Saints are knighted such by papal decree, the truest saints are blessed as such by God and only to others through the eyes a saintly reflection. Papal eyes are as flawed as ours, but acknowledged flaws do sharpen them.

      Your commentary and article were enjoyable to read, think about and reflect on :)


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